This essay was originally posted at The Grad Partnership.
Reflecting on another Black History Month, I am reminded of the many missed opportunities we’ve had to truly align our actions with our ideals. This includes the ideal of ensuring all students have the supports they need to succeed in school and graduate prepared for the future of their dreams. Yet it is clear that, at too many schools across the country, our usual actions fall short. What might it look like to do something different?
Schools and educators confront an array of challenges each day — chief among them, under-funding, chronic absenteeism, teacher shortages, student disengagement, and ensuring that all students are on track for success. And while community engagement has long been a worthy goal for schools, it’s especially crucial today for communities of color. Our schools can’t fully understand and tackle these challenges on their own — they extend far beyond the school walls and overcoming them requires strengthening connections between home and school. That’s why proactively communicating with and productively engaging parents must be a top priority and we can honor Black History Month by resolving to engage communities of color differently.
News coverage and public discussion of community engagement often focus on intense confrontations between parents and education leaders. By their telling, communities and schools are at odds. But which communities? Throughout these stories, there is a feeling that systems are increasingly erasing the presence and perspectives of communities of color from the entire teaching and learning enterprise. With so much at stake, I worry that debates over books, history, curriculum, and other hot-button issues distract schools and districts from the hard work needed to meaningfully engage parents and communities of color. Put another way, the voices of a vocal and well-resourced few are attempting to crowd out and overshadow the voices of other parents, particularly those with fewer resources and those from communities of color.
What might a different kind of community engagement look like? Schools must find ways to proactively engage parents and communities through a variety of channels. School and district leaders must intentionally build trust and dialogue with communities that have been historically marginalized and who are most often adversely impacted by school policies and procedures.
The number of chronically absent students has soared since schools reopened during the pandemic, with more than a quarter of students missing at least 10% of the 2021-22 school year, according to the most recent data. This is an opportunity for schools to proactively engage parents to identify and address the root causes of student disengagement and chronic absenteeism and develop achievable plans to re-engage students.
Some states and districts are already showing what’s possible. Using federal Covid-19 relief funds, the Hartford Public School district in Hartford, Connecticut, launched its “Caring by Connecting” initiative in 2021 to re-engage absent and missing students by working with community agencies to deepen connections with parents and families during the pandemic. While schools have traditionally responded to student absenteeism with punitive approaches, Hartford’s Office of Family and Community Partnerships bet on a collaborative, solutions-focused effort. They shared resources for remote learning and conducted home visits to build trust and meet families where they are.
That bet clearly paid off. A Connecticut State Department of Education report released earlier this year found that the home visiting program led to significant increases in student attendance.
Another key strategy schools should pursue is engaging community-based organizations that are advocating on behalf of families of color. Such engagement can help break down barriers that often exist for communities most impacted by school policy and practice decisions. For example, the Connecticut Black and Brown Student Union and the Community First Coalition have worked with a variety of stakeholders, including schools, to focus attention on school resource officers and begin an important conversation about the prevalence of law enforcement in schools.
Similarly, the Massachusetts Education Justice Alliance is working with a diverse set of other community organizations to help local schools and communities adopt equity-focused student success systems – a framework by which schools focus on relationship-building and data-driven decision making to support students before they fall off track. That means examining school policies and practices to ensure that every obstacle to student growth and success is identified and removed.
These community based organizations and many others across the country are part of the Schott Foundation’s Opportunity to Learn Network – a coalition of national alliances and community-based grassroots organizations that works to secure a fair and just high-quality public education for all students by centering Black, Brown and Native students. For schools, actively engaging groups like these will lead to more equitable learning environments for all students.
As Covid-19 relief funding winds down, effective community engagement will become even more important, but also more challenging. Schools are already being confronted with staff shortages, shrinking programmatic resources, and emotionally-charged fights over curricula.
If we are going to have a chance of strengthening the great American public education enterprise, we owe history an obligation to join hands – school and community – to ensure student success and protect our democracy for generations to come. If the goal of public education is to create and sustain a well-informed and active citizenry, then our very future as a nation depends on our getting this right. Let’s resolve to start working together this February!
Michael S. Wotorson is the Schott Foundation’s Director of the National Opportunity to Learn Network.